`When you work with someone you are also in love with, the imaginative process becomes your whole life'

Nicola Bacon
Saturday 20 April 1996 23:02 BST

Stephen Daldry, 35, is artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre in London. He studied at Sheffield University, then ran away with a circus to Italy. In 1989, he became artistic director of the Gate Theatre, London, where his work won many prestigious awards.

Ian MacNeil, 36, grew up in New York. He studied at Croydon College of Art before taking up theatre design in Manchester. His many award-winning stage designs include the hugely successful An Inspector Calls, his first collaboration with Stephen Daldry. The couple live together in west London.

Stephen Daldry: It was 1988 and I was on my way to walk Hadrian's Wall when I stopped off in Lancaster to see a play directed by a friend of mine. It was one of those big, outdoor events where the audience follows the cast around a park. I was introduced to Ian just before the show began. He was wearing this very smart, outsize suit and there was this safety pin stuck in the lapel. I couldn't work out why. I thought it was some sort of homage to punk, but it turned out to be some sort of gay tagging, one of these little clues that gay men give each other. I didn't recognise the signals at all; I constantly fail on that one.

We spent the whole show together. We were quite cruisey, but cautious, too. We started by checking out what, and who, the other liked and didn't like professionally. We were wary of each other, but in the end we both liked the same people. I knew straight away that I'd see him again. Not that we immediately bonded: he was prickly, quite cold and removed. I thought, "He'll be hard work", and that appealed.

We next met in Manchester. He came to see a show I was doing. I was surprised that he turned up. I'd called him before I came down and had promised to organise something, but I hadn't got around to it, and anyway I was with somebody else that night. I think he was rather perturbed. We met a couple of times after that, and had a good time together.

Then I went to America and while I was there I made a decision that I was going to go for this. I don't really know why: we'd had a few nights together, we'd spent a great weekend together, he had introduced me to a right-on, political gay scene which I'd never been involved with before. He was interesting and sexy and obsessive about his work. I felt that there was enough there for me to make a leap.

So when I came back from America I literally turned up at his door and said, "I'm going to live with you". He was rather surprised. Then I began the constant process of badgering him to fall in love with me. It took quite a long time, I seem to remember. He was so reticent, so untrusting. But I used guerrilla tactics: the more unsure he was, the more certain I became until, eventually, he fell for me.

We could have settled in Manchester, I suppose, but I had this glamour need. I needed the bright lights. I suggested moving to London, and that's what we did. We lived right on top of each other in this bedsit in Camberwell, the size of a postage stamp and utterly squalid. It was a fantastic way to become intimate.

When we first worked together it was very difficult, but I don't use "difficult" in a pejorative sense. The difficulty was the very thing that became fascinating. When you work with someone you are also in love with the imaginative process becomes your whole life. Living and working with Ian means that intellectually and aesthetically and emotionally the challenge is always there. Some people would find that claustrophobic, but I find it remarkable, exciting. When we were working on An Inspector Calls, I'd wake him up at 4am saying, "You're wrong, you're so wrong. I can't believe how wrong you are".

We always say in public that our ideas merge, that we can't remember who thought of what, but in fact it's remarkably clear who came up with what. We don't become one when we work together. When you're trying to imagine the world of a play it's like handing over the baton to someone else. One runs with it for a while and then they pass it on and the other runs with it then passes it back. Unless you put in a huge amount of time together, it just doesn't work, which is why it's an obsessive working relationship.

We have terrible arguments. When we work on a show together it's not just, "Let's do a show", it's, "Lets tear the relationship apart and rebuild it while we do a show". If it works, it's fantastic. If it goes wrong, it's awful.

When we started making money it was odd and unexpected. Money never really changed anything, but success,meant we spent less time together. We miss each other, and the relationship works best when we're spending a lot of time together. We've been through a process recently of deciding whether we were going to stay together or whether to let the separateness of our lives take its course. The choice has been to stay together.

I love the idea of getting old with Ian. I think we'll be fantastic when we're 80: two genial, pipe-smoking queers, surrounded by our clan and, I hope, with enough money to be able to give it away to the younger folk.

IAN MACNEIL: We met in the summer of 1988. A mutual friend, the director Ian Forest, was doing an outdoor production of Alice in Wonderland in Lancaster. Ian had mentioned Stephen before: he had been shortlisted for Ian's job in Lancaster, but Stephen had turned up to the interview in something innappropriately big and white. I was expecting some dreadful Sebastian Flyte type, but he wasn't like that at all. He was flip and funny and sexy, with a very good line in patter.

We wandered around the park, talking a bit, watching the show for a bit, talking a bit more. We were in a group, this wandering audience, and yet we were alone. There was an electricity there. It was nice, but we weren't very nice to each other. There was a lot of rivalry, I think because we were at the same level in our careers, both pushing the "promising" thing a bit far, both beginning to feel disenchanted with where we were.

That night we all went back to Ian's flat, but Stephen slept with someone else. I was lying there, reading my book, saying to myself, this is much nicer than being with him, anyway. When I woke up the next morning, Stephen and Ian had gone, but that afternoon I ran into Stephen again. He was wearing this bizarre cagoule and said he was going to walk Hadrian's Wall, and did I know where the M1 was. I didn't, so he just wandered off. It was pathetic, but poignant. I remember thinking, he'll never make it.

But when I met him again, months later, he'd done it; he'd walked the wall. I was very impressed by that. I was living in Manchester, and he'd come down to direct a show, which he invited me to come and see. It was over-large, very theatrical, but it didn't excite me deeply, I have to say. Stephen never came across as someone who knew what he was doing. We chatted after the show, but it was uncomfortable; there was an ex-boyfriend of his wandering around, and Stephen still seemed as flip as ever. Then we saw each other again, and then again, and on about the fourth occasion I said, "Look are we going to sleep together or not?" He said later that he found this very uncool, but I was just so pissed off by then.

We went back to this actress's house, a rambling, romantic house, and in the morning I woke up and there was a dense fog, the kind of fog where you really can't see your hand in front of you, and it was like we were the only two people on the planet. We saw each other a couple of times after that but I did not think this was going to turn into a major relationship.

Falling for Stephen was exciting and frightening - like dropping down a hole. We dated for a bit, and became quite close. Then he went off to America and that, I thought, was that. After two months I got this letter which he'd written over a period of weeks. In it, he described his fantasy of our future life together. We'd have an adventure together, he said. Then he showed up on my doorstep and suddenly we were living together. The next thing I knew we'd moved to London. I was carried along by him, whooshed along, but quite happily, as it turned out.

I didn't know he was a good director until he did a show called Judgement Day at the Old Red Lion, London. I'd seen how focused and intense he'd been while he was working on it and I'd been jealous of how much time it was taking up. I kept thinking, "It's just a pub show, for God's sake." But then I saw it and was thrilled - it was so big. We'd been living together for months by then and it was bizarre to find that he was really good at what he did.

Whatever Stephen does, its like he's saying, "Lets make a party." Whatever he's doing, that's the party, and he invites everyone to enjoy it. He's celebratory, always. I don't have that. My sister said to me once, "It must be amazing to wake up every day with someone so optimistic", and it is.

As time goes by, we become more familial. Our mutual need to expand our nucleus and embrace other people gets stronger all the time; it is something we share. We've bought a house which we're doing up like some kind of Narnia, full of little doors, odd platforms, strange follies. Its become a huge project, another show.

I like to think of us growing old together. I like the idea of a growing companionship, and a shared mythology. But if it ever stops feeling right, I hope we'd have the courage and the imagination to cut out. !

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